Director of Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation
Back in July, I read an article by Frank Frisbie and James Cistone, “A House Built on Sand,” in the Summer issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control. In the piece, they referred to the original NAS Plan of 1981 (a.k.a. the Brown Book), which called for both reduced reliance on ground-based infrastructure and consolidating ATC facilities. Emails to both authors produced references to various documents with specifics of what was proposed, both in the Brown Book and much later in the JPDO’s initial research and analysis to develop the modernization plan we know as NextGen. Here is what I learned.
Unfortunately, the original Brown Book is not online, but since Congress required annual progress reports, I was able to obtain a copy of the 1989 update from Suzette Matthews (who had also worked on early NextGen planning). That document still reflected the original plan’s concept of replacing centers and TRACONs with consolidated Area Control Facilities.
As noted on p. III-1, “The present artificial boundary between en-route and terminal air traffic control will be increasingly eliminated as the NAS Plan is implemented.” And the next page adds, “The new computers, software programs, and displays now being developed will be capable of providing both en-route and terminal services. This will enable the agency to consolidate and reduce the number of facilities needed.” And a bit further on, “The capability of the system to support both en-route and terminal functions allows for consolidation into area control facilities.” A 2005 paper for the Transportation Research Forum (TRF), by Arthur Shantz and Matthew Hampton of the DOT Inspector General’s Office, reported that the 1983 plan called for just 23 area control facilities, replacing all domestic and oceanic centers and TRACONs.
The 1989 Brown Book update provided some specific goals for increased productivity increases. For example, on page I-4, one goal was to increase the productivity of controllers and flight service specialists by a factor of at least two between 1980 and 2000, with a goal for the year 2000 of 10,982 flight operations per position per year. Shantz and Hampton reported that the actual number for 2000 was just 6,171 operations, and that the estimated number for 2004 was an even-lower 5,576. Productivity at en-route centers was somewhat higher, at an average of 7,297 in 2000 (but decreasing to an estimated 6,274 in 2004).
Against this background of failed accomplishment, the team assembled by the JPDO to develop the plans for NextGen thought even bigger. Again, the assumption was that advanced technology and facility consolidation would lead to significant gains in productivity. Matthews described their plan as replacing all ATC centers and TRACONs with three national ATC facilities: east, center, and west, each able to control the entire airspace. (This is similar to what Australia and the U.K. have done, about a decade ago.) There would be no sector or regional boundaries. The function of air traffic controllers would evolve to become airspace managers.
Once again, however, the actual NextGen program has ignored facility consolidation, despite some initial discussions within FAA about a decade ago. Although most of the existing TRACONs and centers are aging and in need of replacement, the FAA’s inability to finance large-scale development of new replacement facilities, combined with understandable resistance from controllers opposed to being required to move to consolidated facilities, seems to have deep-sixed that major portion of the original NextGen concept.
In assessing what was already going wrong as of 2005, Shantz and Hampton noted that “NAS modernization architecture and project designs have been consistently subverted by requirements growth, development delays, cost escalations, and inadequate benefits management. But all these things were symptomatic of the fact that FAA didn’t think it needed to reduce operating costs.”
And that is a great disservice to those who operate aircraft in the National Airspace System.
The 2013 Reason Foundation Policy Study
One-Time Consolidation Savings
- Centers and TRACONs closed $689 million
- ATC equipment and structures retired $654 million
- Salvaged equipment value $294 million
- Avoided facility refurbishment costs $98 million
- Total one-time savings: $1,735 million
Annual Consolidation Savings
- Productivity gains from economies of scale $314 million
- Next-Gen productivity increases $540-680 million
- Facility and equipment maintenance savings $109 million
- Total annual savings: $963-$1,103 million
The analyses made five years ago are still compelling; well worth reading.
While there may be institutional impediments to ATC Consolidation (particularly NATCA), somewhat like Base Closure and Realignment, the ultimate blockage comes from Congress. An En Route Center is the locus of a large number of well paid federal employees and the secondary benefits of that labor pool means improvement to Congressional Districts’ local economy.
The policy guidance from Congress includes at least two sections of Reauthorization Acts: §804 of PL 112-95( calling for a detailed report with specific questions to be answered, a specific public comment process and CONGRESSIONAL DISAPPROVAL as the final possibility) and § 510 of PL 115-254 (which DID NOT Admonish the Administrator for failing to meet the deadline of the 2012 Report, but added some minor points). Equally puzzling are a series of hearings over at least 6 years, again without any definitive direction from Congress
J. David Grizzle, then Chief Operating Officer, of the FAA ATO, testified that the §804 mandate caused him to create a Collaborative Workgroup to address the Congress’ requirement. The FAA, NATCA and PASS joint effort recommended:
1. Realign Peoria, IL (PIA) and Springfield, IL (SPI) TRACON operations to St. Louis, MO (T75) TRACON
2. Realign Pasco, WA (PSC) TRACON operations to Spokane, WA (GEG) TRACON
After that awesome identification, the team left the following guidance:
The repeatable and defensible process developed by the workgroup serves as a stable foundation for realignment analyses and recommendations that will be developed in the future. The workgroup will use the process to maximize operational, administrative, and maintenance efficiencies, support transition to NextGen, and deliver the highest value to stakeholders.
Through continuous analysis and assessment of facilities through this process, the FAA supports its goal of ensuring safe and secure operations across the nation.
The FAA’s success in conducting realignment analysis, continuing to develop realignment recommendations, and implementing those realignments is contingent upon stable multi-year funding, continued collaboration with labor unions, and coordination with industry stakeholders.
Oddly enough as we head toward a lame duck period of Congress, a time when a number of members no longer have to worry about being reelected, it is possible that a bill truly mandating consolidation of the ATC facilities, as the Poole/Frisbie & Cistone papers clearly show is merited, could be enacted for the better of America’s taxpayers (nationally) and the efficiency of the National Airways System
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